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Image: Reuters/Anton Denisov/RIA Novosti

Fumbling on Syria

Jeannette Seiffert / mll
September 10, 2013

The Chancellor's delay in signing a Western declaration on Syria was met with criticism both at home and abroad. Syria is now a campaign issue in the election, as opposition parties are quick to point out differences.


Until last weekend, Angela Merkel seemed to be doing most things right in the current election campaign. Nobody seemed able to find anything like an Achilles' heel to go after the chancellor of eight years.

Now, though, Merkel has shown her critics a weak spot in her handling of the Syria crisis. Sigmar Gabriel, chair of the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, jumped on the chance and spoke of a "complete breakdown of German foreign policy."

A missing signature

Merkel had left the G-20 summit in Russia on Friday without having signed a US-sponsored declaration on the Syria crisis in which the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad was accused of the poison gas attack on a part of Damascus. At the time, she was not alone - Spain and Italy had also not signed.

By the time she landed in Berlin a few hours later, Germany was on its own - the only Western state whose name was not on the list of signatories. Aside from Germany, only Russia and China were missing. The Western allies were initially confused, then astonished and finally, in many cases, annoyed at the German unilateral position.

Merkel boarding a plane Photo: Kay Nietfeld/dpa
The situation changed while Merkel was in the airImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Merkel tried to rescue what she could: she signed the document a few hours later, and explained her delay by saying that she wanted to consult other smaller EU countries so that the EU would be following a united policy.

Many people thought the explanation came too late: the diplomatic damage had already been done.

A chance for the opposition?

Rolf Mützenich, foreign policy spokesperson of the Social Democrats in parliament, was quick to use the development to attack the chancellor and her foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle. Evidently, he said, other European countries had been able to hold talks with allies like the USA and Canada on the fringes of the G-20 summit, without Germany: "That shows how little influence the German government has in international politics right now."

And he added a further accusation: it showed, he said, that Merkel had already offered her support to Obama. "There's no other way for me to understand Obama's statement that individual government leaders had offered him their support in private, and that he expected them to do so in public."

A survivor from what activists say is a gas attack rests inside a mosque in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus August 21, 2013. Syrian activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's forces of launching a gas attack that killed more than 200 people on Wednesday, in what would, if confirmed, be by far the worst reported use of chemical arms in the two-year-old civil war. Syrian state television denied government forces had used poison gas and said the accusations were intended to distract a team of United Nations chemical weapons experts which arrived three days ago. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
The world agrees something needs to be done about the alleged poison gas attack - but what?Image: Reuters

Does that mean that Merkel promised Obama support for a military strike and then changed sides? The Social Democrats can scarcely prove that. But their aim is obviously to cast doubts just before the election as to whether the government really meant its "No" to any military involvement.

Lessons from the war in Iraq

The past has shown that foreign policy issues can substantially shift German elections. In 2002, the issue was involvement in the Iraq war, which the Social Democratic then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder firmly rejected. Back then, as chairman of the Christian Democrat opposition, Merkel held the position that it was wrong to rule out a military option from the start. She was following the classical rules of crisis diplomacy, but Schröder had the majority on his side and won the election.

The current opposition's main problem is that there isn't as much difference between the parties on Syria as there was over Iraq.

An SPD campaign poster showing the coffins of US soldiers Photo: Igor Pastierovic dpa/lsn
The Social Democrats have accused Merkel of being ready to risk German lives in IraqImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Josef Janning of the German Council on Foreign Relations says, "It's not a lot of use as ammunition for the election campaign." He told Deutsche Welle, "The government and the main opposition parties are fairly well agreed on what the German position should be." He doesn't think that the Social Democrats and their Green allies will be able to win many points from Merkel on this issue.

Germanyon its own?

But he also doesn't believe that the Chancellor's fumbling of the issue has really caused serious concern among the Western allies. He believes that Germany is only ever on the margins in international crises, since everyone knows that the majority in Germany is skeptical about military action. So there hasn't been much diplomatic damage.

"Many people will say, 'Germany's in the middle of an election campaign, so what can you expect,'" says Janning, "And anyway, no one thinks the German government will ever take a robust position on such issues."

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